Communication studies seminar shows how games reflect culture

November 16, 2010

Joining a game of pickup basketball is an American pastime; if you haven't jumped onto a basketball court at some point yourself, chances are you've at least watched from the sidelines.  But did you know that basketball was deliberately invented in the late 19th century not to teach dribbling skills but American values to new immigrants?

Games are often about more than play, says Department of Communication Studies associate professor Jennifer Light.

Light's fall quarter seminar, Games for Social Change, is letting Northwestern students see how games, just like other cultural artifacts, reflect the society in which they are created.

From board games and basketball to role-play and video games, games have been essential media in movements for social change in the United States. Light's seminar examines the evolution of games for social change from late 19th century board games for moral instruction through contemporary computer-based networked simulations for civic education.

"The thing I'm most proud of with the class is that we take a topic that seems almost too silly to have seriousness behind it and show how its origins lie in serious questions that relate to all sorts of political and social movements in American society," Light said.

Each week, the discussion-based class looks at the history and evolution of different types of games, from board games to athletic and recreational games to "war and peace" games to simulation games. Students even get a chance to play some of the games in class.

"The class is fascinating in the ways it takes games common and familiar and examines them in ways previously unimaginable," said senior communication studies and economics major Andrew Karp. "Who would have thought to think of 'The Game of Life' as a means of reinforcing our society's ever-changing definition of success? Plain and simple, the class is a reminder that any human construction, whether intended to or not, can have social consequence."

Karp said he plans to focus his final research project for the class on the "marginalization of different minorities in the world of sports, playing careful attention to issues of sexuality and gender."

For senior theatre and science and human culture major Marissa Konstadt, the class has given her an opportunity to revisit in her final project a game she enjoyed during childhood.

"I am researching 'Oregon Trail,'" Konstadt said. "I really look forward to playing it (now that I am no longer 11) and finding out from my peers what their experiences with the game were."

Konstadt said she chose to take Light's class because she enjoys "classes that connect our everyday activities to social theory."

Karp said he finds the class to be "incredibly well designed" with thought-provoking readings.

"Having the freedom to choose our own final project topics has also been incredibly valuable," he said. "It encourages us to explore concepts we are passionate about."

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